PARISH THE THOUGHT
A Former Church Warden Writes
By Virginia Stourton
Where is our national Church in times of agony as we look at the horrors unfolding in Ukraine? Are there priests in every city, town and village preaching Jesus Christ’s message of Hope, Love and Eternal Life? The answer is no. There is a dearth of priests in the parishes. Those who are apparent are obviously overworked and underpaid for the responsibility they shoulder.
There are too many ordained clergy working in diocesan offices. They should be out in the parishes, helping their colleagues to minister to the people, whose donations paid for their training. We have a national mental health crisis after the pandemic. There is so much work which could be done to rebuild resilience.
Priests are now expected to cover too many parish churches, or too large a geographical area or population. This leaves limited time for vital pastoral care, whereby they could identify the real needs of people on the ground. The Church’s own research tells us that amalgamating parishes, with the dioceses selling parsonages and pocketing the proceeds, drives decline in church attendance and donations. Many rural churches no longer get much vicar time or a weekly Sunday service, making it harder for the people to keep up momentum and holy habits.
I have been campaigning for years to get priests paid properly. However, increasingly, the dioceses seem to expect priests to work without any stipend; to take services in exchange for a house, or to be ‘self-supporting’ by doing other work. Having to support themselves financially will leave little time for the running of a parish.
Our Church hierarchy seems not to realise how their own actions have driven decline over the years. They seem removed from reality, too busy dishing out directives such as GS2222 (the ‘Church Closers’ Charter, a green paper designed to make it easier and quicker for dioceses to close and sell churches). Despite the hostile response to GS2222 from the public, they have not torn it up, but are working on amendments, presumably to look as if they are listening when they are not. Their focus seems to be on making life easier for middle management, who are detached from the real coalface.
The visible decline in parish churches has been caused because the Church has not invested at ground level for years, but pumped money out of the parishes to fund bureaucracy and projects. They have used good, well-meaning and hardworking priests with little thought for their welfare, by giving them unacceptable workloads and poor pay. Then, they put pressure on them to grow churches although the dioceses, by amalgamating too many parishes, have made it almost impossible to achieve this. People do not want to donate to fund a bureaucracy. We read in the papers that the Church has wasted money on unsuccessful projects which have competed with the parishes and helped to run them down.
The Church is now actively encouraging parishioners to travel to churches outside their local areas, presumably to enable the Church to shut more churches and sell them. This seems out of touch with the price of petrol and is another poorly thought-out idea. It comes just at a time when there is movement out of cities because of the pandemic. In many villages, the church is the only public building. People are very attached to their local church building and priest and this is what encourages them to support the Church. It should not be seen as a problem.
Any organisation needs to be agile to survive today. Too much top-heavy management leads to a ‘wooden’, one-size-fits-all approach which cannot relate to the reality of life in parishes in different individual locations. My local priest is leaving parish ministry after twelve years. The depressing part as well as the huge gap he will leave, is the acceptance by his parish that there will automatically be a minimum of a one-year interregnum.
Build a house without sound foundations and it will fall. Run a business without careful attention to the role of the salesmen and failure will follow.
If a Russian/NATO war kicks off, where will we find priests to bury the dead and give comfort to the bereaved across the length and breadth of our country?
PARISH the thought. Of course, this is a play on words, but as one wonders what the thinking is behind the directives from the top. The traditional independence of parish priests has been undermined. Are parish priests now simply tools to be used?
Church of England, please look to your grass roots and the simplicity of Jesus Christ and His message. You seem to be clouding a simple, and glorious, message with complicated managerialism, which makes little sense to those of us who want to love our neighbours and cherish the local.
Ms Stourton served as a Church Warden for twenty years and is a supporter of the Save the Parish campaign.